Here is an interesting development: Astellas Pharma has filed a lawsuit againstPrescrire, a medical journal that is published by a non-profit organization, for publishing articles the drugmaker maintains has tarnished the reputation of its Protopic ointment used to treat eczema.
An article run last year questioned the preventive use of the ointment and maintained the risk-benefit balance was negative. An Astellas spokeswoman writes us to say that the drugmaker believes the article is "misleading." The magazine counters that "freedom of expression and exercise of freedom of criticism are at stake," according to Le Figaro), which also reported the drugmaker believes the criticism is part of a smear campaign. Prescrire has run several articles, actually, about the ointment, which is also known as tacrolimus (see the list).
"Protopic has undergone one of the most extensive clinical testing programmes in dermatology," the Astellas spokeswoman adds. "To date, more than 24,000 patients have been treated...Across all studies and post-marketing surveillance, Protopic is well tolerated with an acceptable safety profile..." She notes the European Medicines Agency approved the ointment for preventing eczema flare-ups.
Of course, the lawsuit was filed in France, and laws differ among countries. Nonetheless, the move raises the prospect of similar actions that could be pursued in certain venues against a publisher that runs critical articles of a medicine. The notion of a smear campaign is disturbing, of course. On the other hand, there is also the matter of free speech. Medical journals make plenty of mistakes (can you say 'ghostwriting' or 'Andrew Wakefield and autism?'), but these publications are designed to further scientific discourse, which is an important service provided by reputable journals. Astellas may want to consider fighting speech with more speech.